Cael Sanderson - Best Amateur Wrestler

Cael Norman Sanderson may be the greatest amateur wrestler in history.

Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on this date in 1979, he is the third of Steve and Debbie Sanderson’s four boys, all of whom won Utah state high school wrestling titles. Cael attended Wasatch High School in Heber City, about 45 minutes southeast of Salt Lake City, where he was an all-region football player. Steve Sanderson was head wrestling coach at Wasatch High, and the sport was part of the family culture. At Wasatch, Cael had a 127-3 record, won four state titles and was named a high school All-American in 1997. After graduating from WHS, Sanderson followed his two older brothers, Cody and Cole, to Iowa State University. After redshirting the 1997-98 season, Sanderson won all 39 matches and the NCAA title at 184 pounds in his first season at Iowa State. He was named Most Outstanding Wrestler, becoming the first freshman in NCAA tournament history to earn that honor. The following year, Sanderson again went undefeated, won the NCAA title, and was awarded the Dan Hodge Trophy as the nation’s best wrestler. He was the first underclassman to win the Hodge and, in the off season, took the World University title in Tokyo, Japan. In 2000-01, Sanderson went 40-0 to raise his career record to 119-0, breaking the great Dan Gable’s [Daily Dose, September 30] mark of 98 consecutive wins, a feat Gable accomplished while also wearing the cardinal and gold singlet of the Iowa State Cyclones. He was named Most Outstanding Wrestler of the NCAA tournament after claiming his third title at 184 and was the first two-time winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy. After moving up to the 197-pound weight class as a senior, Cael Sanderson cemented his legacy, going undefeated while becoming the second wrestler, behind Pat Smith, to win the NCAA Division I individual title four times. He won his third Hodge Trophy and set an NCAA record with 159 straight wins.

After graduating in 2002, Sanderson stayed at Iowa State, where he worked as an assistant coach while training for the 2004 Summer Olympics. After winning the silver medal at the 2003 World Championship in New York City, he trained for the Athens Games under legendary coach Bobby Douglas, who had mentored him as a collegian. Sanderson won gold in the 84 kg [184 pound] weight class after defeating Eui Jae Moon of South Korea in the finals. He became ISU’s head coach in 2007, led the Cyclones to three straight runner-up finishes in the NCAA tournament, and was named National Coach of the Year following his rookie campaign. In 2009, he left one of the most prominent wrestling programs in the nation to become head coach at Penn State, who last won a national title in 1953. Sanderson took over a team that had finished seventh in the Big Ten the previous year. With the help of his older brother Cody serving as an assistant coach, Sanderson led the Nittany Lions to conference and national titles in only his second season in Happy Valley and has gone on to win Big Ten and NCAA team championships in five of the past six campaigns. Like Bill Tierney [Daily Dose, April 14], who left Princeton for the University of Denver only to turn that program into a lacrosse powerhouse, Sanderson has made Penn State a force to be reckoned with. “We just try to recruit kids that have a similar passion to us.”

Cael Sanderson is one of the most decorated collegiate wrestlers of all time. He is the only undefeated four-time champion in NCAA history, holds the record for most consecutive wins and is the only three-time winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy. Sports Illustrated ranked his undefeated career at Iowa State as the second most outstanding achievement in the history of college athletics, behind only Jesse Owens setting four world records within a single hour at the 1935 Big Ten Track & Field Championships. In eight years of high school and college wrestling, Sanderson won eight individual weight class titles, won 286 matches, and lost only three times. He was named Most Outstanding Wrestler of the NCAA tournament in each of his four seasons at ISU, won an Olympic gold medal and appeared on the Wheaties box as a college senior. His accomplishments in coaching are reminiscent of Gable, who won 15 NCAA team titles with the University of Iowa. In three years at Iowa State, Sanderson won the Big 12 title each season and sent every one of his wrestlers—30 in all—to the NCAA championships. At Penn State, he has won the conference and national title in five of the last six years, producing 19 All-Americans, eight NCAA champions, and a two-time Hodge Trophy winner. In 2010, Cyler Sanderson—Cael’s younger brother—won the 2010 Big Ten championship at 157 pounds for Penn State after transferring from ISU so he could be coached by his older brother Cael.

“Winning a gold medal was something I always wanted. It’s something I always expected to do. Going undefeated wasn’t a goal of mine until I got to college.”

– Cael Sanderson